I’m finally letting myself believe it: the enormous pile of children in our sanctuary is not a fluke, and this is not just an Easter spike. These kids are coming, and they’re staying.
And we need to teach them about Jesus.
Of course we’ve been teaching children about Jesus–in small, manageable increments. Now they have outgrown their space, seemingly overnight. Loaves and fishes up in here–but with children. ‘New Program for Older Elementary Kids’ just went from about #8 to numero uno on our to-do list–did I mention, overnight. Which led me on an internet search for creative, engaging, meaningful material for Christian education. And now I remember why I hate looking for this stuff. Because most of it sucks.
Thing is, it doesn’t all suck in the same way. There is great stuff out there–engaging, colorful, high-energy, user-friendly for leaders, and just all around fun. However, if it gets an ‘A’ in those categories, there’s a good chance that the theology is going to be–let’s say, problematic. Or maybe just kind of shallow.
Then there’s the progressive, intelligent, challenging content…usually about as interesting as watching gray paint dry. There are worksheets involved. Coloring papers. And possibly, a trust walk involving blind folds. (But we save that for the REALLY fun day.) Also, the smart and progressive stuff can be pretty light on the Jesus.
I can sum up these troubling extremes in the past-Church experience of two families I’ve met recently. One comes from another mainline church in the area. Both parents grew up in the denomination, both have held leadership roles in the church, and they felt the congregation mirrored their progressive values (translation: doesn’t hate on girls or gays) . But for some time, they’ve felt that something was missing in the spiritual side of things. Then, at Christmas, the mother got out the family nativity set. Upon seeing the manger, her 3-year-old daughter said, “Is that baby Santa??”
So, ‘church-going child who has never heard of Jesus:’ we’ll call that the Progressive Problem. Meanwhile: another child went to Easter worship elsewhere, with a family member. She came home and told her mom that, “If I’m not a good girl, Jesus will kill me.”
WTF?? I don’t know the first thing about this other church–name, location, or affiliation–but i’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they probably didn’t say that to a child, not exactly. Thing is, kids discern layers of meaning. They are creative, complex little boogers. You don’t have to come right out and say ‘Jesus will kill you’ in order for a child to draw that connection. If Easter–or the message of salvation–is a little too blood and gutsy, then in a child’s mind, Jesus=death. Let’s call that one the Bloody Jesus Problem.
Both of these families have made their way to the church that I serve, seeking a better message for their children. I really want to give them that.
In Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass criticizes the ‘canned’ children’s programming that I’ve been shopping through. I love much of the book, but she writes off the shiny, colorful world of Christian Ed material a little too easily. She laments by-gone days when church ladies just made Vacation Bible School happen. They assembled the crafts and made cookies and designed banners wrote catchy songs and…it was all so authentic and magical. Now, as she points out, you buy the whole business in a set that literally comes in a can, and you hang a banner that looks just like the banner at the church down the street–advertising exactly the same program as the church down the street. (In my neighborhood, in fact, it would be possible for a child to go to a different VBS each week of the summer…and yet, go to exactly the same VBS, each week of summer).
I agree that it’s cheesy and sterile, and a bit of a cheat. At the same time–you find me 20 church ladies who don’t work in the corporate world, raise grandchildren, hike/bike/do yoga, bake bread, run the church office, write books, garden, travel and, you know, have a life… And I will ask them to really DO Vacation Bible School. And Sunday School and youth group. And children’s worship.
Thing is, my church ladies have lives. So do the men, the young adults, and the parents. And while they are wonderful church leaders and excellent teachers, we can’t really afford be so precious about it. And even if we could, those professionally tricked-out canned things (which, btw, come with a free online planning tool) are drawing people out of our progressive, forward-thinking, woman-empowering, gay-loving mainline churches and into the Bloody Jesus places, every Sunday of the world. Because kids love them. And if kidswantto go to church…well, then so will the rest of the family.
Confession time: I used to work for Group Publishing. In addition to turning out glossy, high-energy and low-planning-needs curriculum, they also run a summer mission trip program. I used to travel the country setting up and helping lead these week-long experiences in small, impoverished communities. At the end of each work day, the high school youth would gather back at the school (which served as headquarters) for dinner, fellowship, and worship.
Ah, worship. It was fun. It was exciting. It was high-energy, high-impact, and emotionally charged. And yeah, it came in a can.
And just like the VBS materials that come from Group (and other companies like them) the Thursday evening experience always centered on the salvation message. I mean…in a Bloody Jesus kind of way. It was dramatic, it was emotional, it played on the hormones and fatigue of teen-agers who have been away from home, sleeping on the floor for a week. Come Saturday morning, kids went home feeling that they’d had a major, transformative experience. And maybe they had…but it came in a can.
Thing is, I loved working for Group. They’re a wonderful company, and their stuff is colorful, engaging and easy to plan. But I use their materials now realizing that, somewhere along the way (especially in VBS) there will be a Bloody Thursday moment that needs to be modified for a progressive audience.
Do I think that sin and salvation are critical messages of Christianity? Of course. Do I think themes of death and resurrection need to be dealt with at a young age? Yes. Do children need to know what ‘crucifixion’ means before they can fix their own sandwiches? Maybe not.
Where the line is, I think each church and parent has to know for themselves. But if a kid comes home from church saying that ‘Jesus is going to kill me,’ somebody has gone too far.
For my money, I’m ready for the fun, glossy, real-world model of children’s ministry that actually teaches kids about Jesus–without dwelling too much on the death and horror of it all. If I knew what that looked like, I’d write it myself, but for reals, I barely know what to tell my own kids about death, Jesus and the Easter bunny.
My friend Sarah over at Salt and Nectar wrote a beautiful piece today about how she started going to church for her kid, but now goes for herself. I find tremendous hope in her story. I hope that other people who left the church when they were younger–fed up with Bloody Jesus and the ways grown-ups used him to manipulate their behavior–will seek out a place of faith and community ‘for their children.’ And I hope that they, too will be surprised by the joyful, inclusive, thoughtful, authentic, and challenging gospel that they hear upon arrival
Because Church is not just about ‘fun.’ But you know, the places where women aren’t allowed to speak; where that kid with two dads is never going to be welcomed; where Bloody Jesus Thursday is a regular event; and where the only question allowed is “what must I do to be saved….?” those places are making it the funnest, and well…I want some of those kids back. And I hope they’ll bring their parents.